Brimful and elusive, like the Heraclitean river that forever moves while standing still, Mikio Naruse's 1956 masterpiece, about a geisha house come on hard times (and not incidentally running athwart modernizing currents in Japanese culture), poises at the indefinable edge of variation and stasis, between evanescent incident and immutable form. Unlike his more famous contemporaries—the traditionalist Ozu, the insular Mizoguchi, the too easily co-opted Kurosawa—Naruse sustained an open-ended relation to contemporary Japanese life, mercilessly clearsighted, and his matter-of-fact juxtapositions of new and old, modern and traditional, tend inevitably toward unsettlement. The largely female cast, including Kinuyo Tanaka, Hideko Takamine, Isuzu Yamada, and Haruko Sugimura, comprises an extraordinary ensemble, and Tanaka especially, as the self-effacing housemaid, is remarkable (all the more so since her performance runs strongly against the Western emotional grain). A great film, not to be missed. In Japanese with subtitles.
By Pat Graham